Category Archives: Bird conservation

“North with the Spring” #18: Palisades and Prairies of Northern Illinois

The bubbling song of the Bobolink greeted me in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

The bubbling song of the Bobolink greeted me in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 25, 2015 Blog #18 of my North with the Spring journey:

As I travel past St. Louis, I am now in the northern half of my journey. I know this because I have left behind the Carolina Chickadee for the Black-capped Chickadee, and I have lost the Fish Crow and Black Vulture. Instead, while birding the hayfields of northern Illinois, I now hear the exciting bubbling song of the Bobolink. Nesting Bobolinks tell me I am in the North! So long, cypress and cherrybark oak!

Testing a Theory

For much of the drive up, I followed the Illinois River valley, which is broad and agricultural but hemmed in by handsome wooded bluffs. Black locusts bloomed in profusion. Late in the morning, I caught sight of a beautiful big male coyote standing in the stubble of a corn field.

Tidy Farm northern IL

A tidy farm in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I decided to camp two nights at Argyle Lake State Park, a small park situated some 30 miles east of the Mississippi. I wanted to see if a small and isolated woodland park in open farmland would produce a greater concentration of migrant songbirds on passage north.

Argyle is a hilly patch of oak woods surrounding a small, dammed lake. I had two good mornings for birding to test my theory: Lots of migrant Tennessee Warblers, a Canada Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and Swainson’s Thrushes. Also there were resident breeders—singing Kentucky Warblers and Ovenbirds. Still, I was hardly overwhelmed by the numbers of migrants in the woods. So much for my theory!

I saw Scarlet Tanagers in a hilly patch of oak woods at Illinois’s Argyle Lake State Park. Photo by Greg Lavaty

I saw Scarlet Tanagers in a hilly patch of oak woods at Illinois’s Argyle Lake State Park. Photo by Greg Lavaty

Not far from Argyle Lake is a restored patch of prairie at Spring Lake Park. I visited early in hopes of Henslow’s Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers. Instead, I saw Bobolinks, Dickcissels, and too many Red-winged Blackbirds to count. From here, I made tracks for my last stop in Illinois: Mississippi Palisades State Park.

At Spring Lake Park, I saw this male Dickcissel in a restored patch of prairie. Photo by Bruce Beehler

At Spring Lake Park, I saw this male Dickcissel in a restored patch of prairie. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Last Look at Summer Tanagers

Mississippi Palisades resembles a northern version of Missouri’s Pere Marquette State Park, featuring bluffs with scenic views of the great river. Hooded Warblers were on territory in the upland woods, and migrant Tennessee Warblers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were noisy in the canopy.

A Wild Turkey hen in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A Wild Turkey hen in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

About seven miles up the road was the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The area supports extensive prairie openings—all across a former U.S. Army Depot. From a river overlook set on a 70-foot natural sand dune, I watched a small group of White Pelicans and several adult Bald Eagles. This is the last place I will see Summer Tanagers, who don’t make it as far north as my next stop in Wisconsin.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #17: Smart Management for Forests and Birds

A rare Black-throated Blue Warbler was among the 54 species I saw at a

Black-throated Blue Warbler was among the 54 species I saw at a “migrant trap” in central St. Louis. Photo by Scott Streit

By Bruce Beehler

May 20, 2015 Blog #17 of my North with the Spring journey:

Arriving in southern Illinois, I came  to Trail of Tears State Forest. Foresters here are working hard to manage this beautiful mature oak forest for the long-term, which means planning for a forest succession that maintains a dominant oak overstory beloved both by hunters and birders.

I saw this male Baltimore Oriole during my travels in Missouri and Southern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I saw this male Baltimore Oriole during my travels in Missouri and Southern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Because of the natural forest dynamics here, this forest, with time, will transition to beech and maple unless there is human intervention in the form of prescribed fire and thinning. It is fascinating to see that the forest needs to be purposefully disturbed to allow oak seedlings to grow successfully into canopy trees.

A Champion Tree

After a morning of intensive learning about managing forests for Cerulean Warblers and Wild Turkeys, I visited the Cache River State Wildlife Area. While exploring a cypress swamp at Heron Pond, I saw two cottonmouth snakes in the water not far from the boardwalk. I also visited a “state champion” cherrybark oak with a diameter of more than five feet.

This cherrybark oak at Cache River State Wildlife Area had a diameter of more than five feet. Photo by Bruce Beehler

This cherrybark oak at Cache River State Wildlife Area had a diameter of more than five feet. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Historical actions and ongoing human disturbance in the Cache ecosystem threaten to degrade the wetlands that make this place so special. What I am learning is that conservationists and foresters have to fight the good fight to see that management of forest and water preserves the natural benefits these places offer to migratory birds and other native plants and animals.

Open Woodlands

The next day, accompanied by ABC’s Larry Heggemann, I visited Wildcat Bluff, in the Cache River ecosystem, and Simpson Creek Barrens. These are both upland sites where forest managers are using fire and selective thinning of the forest canopy to emulate the natural disturbances that historically shaped these open woodland communities.

Forest management creates open woodlands favored by the Prairie Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Forest management creates open woodlands favored by the Prairie Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Though not as stately as mature forest, open oak woodland habitats provide critical foraging and nesting cover vital to many declining grassland-shrub and savanna bird species like Red-headed Woodpecker, Prairie Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat.

Warblers in the City

After leaving southern Illinois, I traveled on to camp just north of St. Louis at Pere Marquette State Park. My plans were to visit an urban “migrant trap” in downtown St. Louis. Many U.S. birders see most of their warblers in an urban setting, so I thought it would be useful to experience this firsthand along the Mississippi with those who know their stuff.

I stood on the spot where the Missouri meets the Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I stood on the spot where the Missouri meets the Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Tower Grove Park, in the center of the city, is a prime spot. Urban parklands like this provide joy for local birders as well as critical stopover habitat for migrants passing through. I was with several local birders, and by 9 a.m. we racked up 54 species.

Highlights were a sighting of Black-throated Blue Warbler, as well as Philadelphia Vireo and Olive-sided Flycatcher. The concentrating effects of a large urban expanse were obvious here, as we had migrant species in numbers that I was not seeing in the heavily wooded state parks.

Check in again soon for the next in my North with the Spring journey with migratory birds!

Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #16: Following Birds and History in Southern Missouri

A Red-Headed Woodpecker in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A Red-Headed Woodpecker in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 16, 2015 Blog #16 of my North with the Spring journey:

From Land Between the Lakes, in western Kentucky, I headed to Missouri, crossing the Mississippi once again. My destination was Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, where the eastern edge of the Missouri Ozarks meets the northern extension of the Delta—a perfect place for wildlife, especially migratory birds. Mingo featured all the goodies: expansive marshy wetlands, grasslands, cypress swamp, oak bottoms, and hilly and rocky uplands.

Early in the morning, I met up with Larry Heggemann of American Bird Conservancy, an expert on Missouri wildlife. As we stood birding in the parking lot of Mingo’s visitor center, a car drove up with Mark Robbins and John Bollin, who were doing a four-day bird survey of the state. Mark is senior author of The Birds of Missouri. I first met Mark more than three decades ago, so it was great to have this surprise encounter.

 I quickly spotted this Prairie Warbler at Cane Ridge, in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I quickly spotted this Prairie Warbler at Cane Ridge, in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Larry and I tagged along with these two for the early morning. Mark has a phenomenal ear and knows songs, calls, and chip notes. Birding with Mark was a rude reminder of how many warbler songs I now have a hard time hearing—a product of age and youthful decades of loud music.

With a lot of help from Mark, we saw more than a dozen migrant warblers and lots of thrushes and vireos to boot.

Shorebird Bonanza

Adjacent to Mingo is Duck Creek State Conservation Area, where Larry worked for many years as a wildlife officer. He gave me the cook’s tour. We focused on the wetlands and saw many shorebirds: Spotted, Solitary, Pectoral, and Least Sandpiper; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; dowitchers; and a single Black-necked Stilt. Waterfowl were abundant; Wood Ducks, in particular, were everywhere.

I spotted a Black-necked Stilt in the wetlands at Duck Creek State Conservation Area in Missouri. Photo by Dan Lebbin

I spotted a Black-necked Stilt in the wetlands at Duck Creek State Conservation Area in Missouri. Photo by Dan Lebbin

Trail of Tears State Park

From Mingo I shifted my base to Trail of Tears State Park, 5,000 acres of hilly upland oak woods on a bluff overlooking the great Mississippi. Across the river were the  rolling, forested hills of Illinois. The park’s stunning location, several hundred feet above the river, is itself worth the price of admission. What a view!

Trail of Tears State Park has a sobering history, though. It marks the spot where groups of Cherokee Indians, uprooted by government mandate in the late 1830s, crossed the Mississippi on the way to a reservation in Oklahoma. What a beautiful place to memorialize such a terrible story.

Trail of Tears State Park featured Mississippi Kite, above, as well as Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler. Photo by Greg Homel, Natural Elements Productions

Trail of Tears State Park featured Mississippi Kite, above, as well as Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler. Photo by Greg Homel, Natural Elements Productions

Once Forest, Now Savanna

The Cane Ridge oak glades, near Poplar Bluff, Mo., is an area that forestry management has opened up into something of a savanna. Fire and selective clearing has allowed grassy understory to attract birds that live in early successional forests. Closed-canopy oak woods now dominate this protected landscape, shutting out the open-country birds, so the oak glades provides important habitat.

At Cane Ridge, forestry management has created grassy understory that attracts birds like this Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo by Bruce Beehler

At Cane Ridge, forestry management has created grassy understory that attracts birds like this Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo by Bruce Beehler

The management has clearly worked, and needs to be done in more places. At Cane Ridge, it has had the desired effect on the bird fauna: I quickly located Red-headed Woodpecker, Prairie Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat, and a bonus bird was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, stopping over on its way to Canada. I missed seeing Blue-winged Warbler, a bird Mark had gotten the previous day.

This Olive-sided Flycatcher stopped in southern Missouri on its way to Canada. Photo by Bruce Beehler

This Olive-sided Flycatcher stopped in southern Missouri on its way to Canada. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Mosquitoes and Migrants

My last morning in Missouri I spent at Big Oak Tree State Park, famous for its champion trees and also an excellent warbler trap. Rain interfered, but there were good numbers both of mosquitoes and migrant songbirds. Golden-winged Warbler was the bird of the day. Next stop, Illinois!


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #15: In the Land of Mighty Rivers

Crossing the Mighty Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Crossing the Mighty Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 12, 2015 Blog #15 of my North with the Spring journey:

After a long day of driving from Arkansas, I negotiated Memphis’s evening rush-hour traffic and arrived at the little-known Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. Located in Millington, Tenn., about 15 miles north of Memphis on the east bank of the Mississippi, the park is an unexpected sylvan oasis. It boasts 12,500 acres of old-growth hardwood upland forest as well as an impressive strip of bottomland — with a large stand of giant cottonwoods — right on the Big River.

Fabulous, Buggy Forest

This has to be one of the few places in the United States where one can drive through a closed canopy old-growth forest for miles and miles. Home to a number of champion trees, the park is also a stunning stopover for migratory birds. At this time, the park was filled with thrushes: resident Wood Thrushes as well as Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes passing through. They were everywhere. Given how few thrushes I see in the Washington, D.C. area in spring, this was a nice surprise.

Resident Wood Thrushes filled Tennessee’s Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Resident Wood Thrushes filled Tennessee’s Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Meeman-Shelby Forest had another notable feature: biting insects. This site, among many stout competitors, had the most ferocious biting insects of the trip so far. They were active noon and night — mosquitoes in the mornings and evenings, and black flies when the sun was high. Migrant birds seemed to love the horde. Large numbers of Tennessee Warblers sang in the forest, along with Hooded and Kentucky Warblers and many others.

Moving Fast

After two nights at Meeman-Shelby, I paid a quick visit to Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge and then continued on to Reelfoot Lake, which hosts a state park and a national wildlife refuge. Reelfoot Lake features stands of cypress in lake water, a theme I have encountered in quite a few bottomland sites on this journey.

The surrounding agricultural lands were flat and overworked, though, with little in the way of natural habitat along the fringes. Too much agriculture today is industrial and wall-to-wall, allowing little marginal habitat in which nature can thrive.

Twin Lakes and Lovely Hills

What a change it was to visit Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area. I left the Delta and entered hilly, forested uplands nestled between two sinuous lakes formed by the damming of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

I camped in an open oak forest overlooking Kentucky’s Energy Lake, with a marvelous sunset my single night there. As dusk settled, I could have been in the middle of the Adirondacks, except the area was happily bug-free.

These Purple Martins were among the many birds I saw at Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area in Kentucky. Photo by Bruce Beehler

These Purple Martins were among the many birds I saw at Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area in Kentucky. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Warbling Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Red-eyed Vireos, and Great Crested Flycatchers sang in the canopy that evening, providing a pleasing day’s-end chorus for an exhausted ornithologist. The next morning, during a long bike ride through the woods, I encountered 10 Tennessee Warblers, four Kentucky Warblers, and two Northern Parulas. Among the singletons I saw were Hooded, Black-and-white, Palm, and Myrtle Warblers. Refreshed by the brief stay between the lakes, by noon I was on my way to Missouri.

During a long bike ride around Land Between the Lakes, I saw this Black and White Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

During a long bike ride around Land Between the Lakes, I saw this Black-and-white Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #14: Giants of the Swamp Forest

Forty acres of old-growth forest in Arkansas’ Delta National Forest are home to giant trees like this sweetgum. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Forty acres of old-growth forest in Arkansas’ Delta National Forest are home to giant trees like this sweetgum. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 11, 2015 Blog #14 of my North with the Spring journey:

After leaving Crossett, Ark., I headed southeast to Mississippi. There, a resident forester at Delta National Forest guided me on a backwoods road to the Green Ash-Overcup Oak-Sweetgum Research Natural Areas. Here I found 40 acres of old-growth forest: Magnificent sweetgum trees were scattered among giant oaks, ash, and a dozen other Delta National Forest species. Many topped 120 feet in height; all were nestled within some 60,000 acres of forest.

A Haven for Migrants

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers almost certainly would have visited some of these big trees when they were only 150 years old. Today, these giants are more than 300 years old and shade a beautiful bottomland forest. On my visit, the trees hosted many calling Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as vocalizing Kentucky Warblers, Acadian Flycatchers, Prothonotary Warblers, and more. Mississippi Kites soared gracefully in pairs and triplets over openings in the canopy.

The gravel forest road that cut straight through the large expanse of forest was wonderful for butterflies and birds and other wildlife. Many Indigo Buntings moved along the edge of the road, and were especially abundant in places where the forest bordered the scrubby edges of fields. These birds were migrants headed up the Mississippi in droves.

Kentucky Warblers called from towering 300-year-old trees in Arkansas’s Delta National Forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Kentucky Warblers called from towering 300-year-old trees in Arkansas’s Delta National Forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A Flooded Forest

After a night in Delta, I headed northwest Arkansas’ White River National Wildlife Refuge. Walking along a bottomland trail that drops off the bluff and passes by the banks of the White River, I found foraging Northern Waterthrushes and singing Tennessee Warblers. And once more, I encountered small flocks of Indigo Buntings — a species that is turning out to be a featured migrant bird of the trip. Much of the area was flooded, including part of this bottomland trail.

The giant of the forest was an immense cherrybark oak with a diameter of more than five feet. In the late morning, I put my kayak in a flooded forest north of the main road. Prothonotary Warblers entertained me to no end: These were males on territory, and they were noisy and aggressive — as well as gorgeous.

Indigo Buntings, heading up the Mississippi in droves, have been a signature species on my journey. Photo by John L. Absher/Shutterstock

Indigo Buntings, heading up the Mississippi in droves, have been a signature species on my journey. Photo by John L. Absher/Shutterstock

A Famous Woodpecker

Because of my obvious fascination with the Ivorybill, I felt compelled to visit Brinkley, Ark., and the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. There, I paddled the Bayou de View, where the famous 2004 sighting of the Ivorybill took place — an event that created a huge flurry of interest in this part of the world. Brinkley loved the publicity and interest the Ivorybill sightings generated; even today, some local establishments still highlight the Ivorybill in a big way.

A 2004 sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was big news in nearby Brinkley, Ark., where the bird’s likeness features prominently in local establishments like Gene’s Restaurant. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A 2004 sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was big news in nearby Brinkley, Ark., where the bird’s likeness features prominently in local establishments like Gene’s Restaurant. Photo by Bruce Beehler

These tracts of bottomland hardwood forest are now exceptional features in the landscape. Row-crop agriculture now dominates the Mississippi Delta. Agricultural policy over the decades has led to the clearance of vast expanses of these wet forests, as farmers expanded into places not meant for this type of intensive production.

Today, some of these cleared areas have been bought back from farmers, and millions of dollars are being spent to bring back the forests to these cleared areas. I saw large-scale re-plantings at a number of national wildlife refuges. I am only sorry they were cleared in the first place.

Crossett’s pine monoculture was very different from the bottomland forest I saw in the Tensas. Row crops now line the prime bottomland that once had forest with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Bottomland forests of the Mississippi Delta – once Ivorybill country – were cleared to create land more suitable to farming. Today, an effort is under way to bring back the forests. Photo by Bruce Beehler


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered. The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #13: Riches of the Southern Forests

A male Prothonotary Warbler in a swamp forest at Louisiana’s Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A male Prothonotary Warbler in a swamp forest at Louisiana’s Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

May 5, 2015 Blog #13 of my North with the Spring journey:

After my second visit to Texas’s High Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, I headed back to Louisiana to the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. This is where Cornell’s James Tanner studied a population of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the late 1930s, and I wanted to visit the McGill Bend of the Tensas (pronounced “Ten-saw”), a 7,000-acre tract of mature bottomland forest. This time I would be there during peak migration.

Accompanied by the refuge forester, we made our way there on an all-terrain vehicle—quite an experience for me, plowing through deep mud and thigh-deep blackwater into what is probably one of the wildest forest patches in the the South. Although dominated by oaks — overcup, cherrybark, water, nuttall, and willow — the forest also has many other types of trees, including American and cedarbark elm; sweet gum; green ash; sassafras; hackberry; honey and black locust; and persimmon.

I explored McGill Bend Forest with Nathan Renick, forester for Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Tensas is home to one of the wildest patches of forest in the South. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

I explored McGill Bend Forest with Nathan Renick, forester for Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Birdsong came from every direction—Pileated Woodpecker; Prothonotary, Swainson, and Kentucky Warbler; Summer Tanager; Great Crested Flycatcher; Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse; and many others.

Back in the Bottoms

Mature bottomland forest has been significantly reduced in the lower Mississippi over the past 150 years. The last of the virgin stands were cut in the late 1930s. Good bottomland forest is probably less than 1 percent of its original extent—having been replaced by rows of milo, rice, cotton, and other crops. To spend a whole morning in this huge tract of big forest took me back in time.

Pine Capital of Arkansas

About two hours north of Tensas lies Crossett, Arkansas. I visited Crossett to do some environmental education work in partnership with my corporate sponsor, Georgia-Pacific. I saw flooded bottoms with cypress, upland stands of pine, and everything in between — including a loblolly pine 62 inches in diameter and more than 130 feet tall. There are not many trees like that left in Arkansas!

While touring the diverse forest ecosystems around Crossett, Ark., with wildlife biologist Bobby Maddrey and forester Don Sisson, both of Georgia-Pacific, we saw a giant loblolly pine. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

While touring the diverse forest ecosystems around Crossett, Ark., with wildlife biologist Bobby Maddrey and forester Don Sisson, both of Georgia-Pacific, we saw a giant loblolly pine. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Much of the landscape in Crossett is planted pine monoculture to feed the Georgia-Pacific mill that makes paper products. It’s a very distinct landscape from what I encountered at Tensas.

Crossett’s pine monoculture was very different from the bottomland forest I saw in the Tensas. Row crops now line the prime bottomland that once had forest with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Crossett’s pine monoculture was very different from the bottomland forest I saw in the Tensas. Row crops now line the prime bottomland that once had forest with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Little Woodpecker of the Pines

Just west of Crossett, where the Saline and Ouachita Rivers pass through the landscape, the bottoms are flooded in spring. High waters inundated part of my campground and many of the roads of my next destination, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

I came to spend time with a colony of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. The woodpeckers are scattered through the old pine savannas of the refuge, which manages its pine stands for the birds through periodic burns of the understory to keep the forest open.

The near-threatened Red-cockaded Woodpecker, pictured here in Arkansas’s Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, is a habitat specialist that depends on open pine forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker, pictured here in Arkansas’s Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, depends on open pine forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

This sort of habitat management is common for a wide range of rare species, including the little Red-cockaded, a habitat specialist listed as near-threatened. But there is hope: Thanks to fire management across the woodpecker’s range, its prospects are brightening.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #12: Songbird Invasion on the Gulf Coast

Seeing the Golden-winged Warbler was particularly special because it is the emblem for my journey. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Seeing the Golden-winged Warbler was particularly special because it is the emblem for my journey. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

27 April 2015, Blog #12 of my North with the Spring journey:

The real-time arrival of songbird migrants coming north across the Gulf was something I very much wanted to see during this journey. So after my travels to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Caddo Lake, I returned to High Island. And I got my chance to see the songbirds – including the Golden-winged Warbler – fill a tiny patch of woods along the Texas coast.

Flocks of Indigo Buntings invaded High Island after crossing the Gulf on their northern migration. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Flocks of Indigo Buntings invaded High Island after crossing the Gulf on their northern migration. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

These little woodlots are precious to migrating birds, who have flown more than 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico: hummingbirds, warblers, vireos, catbirds, orioles, grosbeaks, thrushes, and more.

Haven for Migrants

Boy Scout Woods, operated by the Houston Audubon Society on High Island, provided a first encounter: dozens of Tennessee Warblers flocking to feed on the nectar of red bottlebrush shrubs on the roadside. These canopy-dwelling forest warblers were at eye level and only a few steps away from me. With them in the flowers were Indigo Buntings and orioles.

A Baltimore Oriole on High Island. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A Baltimore Oriole on High Island. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The parking lot at Smith Oaks, another Houston Audubon operation, featured mulberry trees that filled with groups of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Summer Tanagers, feeding lustily while my camera clicked over and over. Male grosbeaks, in all their finery, jostled for prime feeding perches, while birders goggled in amazement. In one afternoon, I must have seen more than 75 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and more than 50 Summer Tanagers.

To the amazement of birders, dozens of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks jostled in the mulberry trees. Video by Don DesJardin.

Flood of Songbirds

Sabine Woods, a conservation property of the Texas Ornithological Society about 20 miles east of High Island, provided the first major songbird invasion. Normally, the migrants come in the afternoon. We arrived before the birds, and by 4 PM they were flooding into the shade of the live oaks: small groups of Painted Buntings, flocks of Indigo Buntings, dozens of Northern Waterthrushes foraging in the pools of water, scores of Swainson’s Thrushes hiding in the shady understory, and too many Ovenbirds to count.

Shaded by live oaks, a Painted Bunting arrives at Sabine Woods. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Shaded by live oaks, a Painted Bunting arrives at Sabine Woods. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Two male Golden-winged Warblers arrived, plus a singleton female. By a small, shaded wetland, a Cerulean Warbler foraged close to the ground, its bright blue back gleaming in an afternoon beam of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. Everywhere were birds: Bay-breasted Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, and more.

Bay-breasted Warblers were among the many species of migratory songbirds that flocked to Sabine Woods after crossing the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Bay-breasted Warblers were among the many species of migratory songbirds that flocked to Sabine Woods after crossing the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The wisdom of the local bird organizations to purchase and manage these precious places is profound. Conservation of these small woodlots—islands of safe habitat surrounded by marshland and rice fields—are first-stop lifesavers to famished and exhausted migrant birds.

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Black-throated Green Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo, and Tennessee Warbler were some of the many species at High Island. Photos by Bruce Beehler.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.